Surge in black approval a welcome sign for GOP

Increase in job approval among African-Americans is due to the war, but President Bush hopes to make inroads.

At the start of George Bush's presidency, perhaps no group felt more disenfranchised than African-Americans. Just 8 percent voted for Mr. Bush in the last election, and the charges of discrimination at Florida voting booths only added to blacks' grievances.

Now, however, the president is making strong inroads into one of the Democrats' most loyal constituencies. Polls show that since Sept. 11, the president's job-approval ratings have increased among blacks more than any other group.

While much of this reflects the rally-around-the-flag phenomenon that has boosted the president's popularity with all Americans, Republicans hope to capitalize on the latest goodwill - no matter how ephemeral.

"The White House recognizes there is this big opportunity because of where the president stands with the public, and specifically African-Americans," says Matt Dowd, a pollster with the Republican National Committee.

The turnaround is particularly noteworthy, given that Bush tried hard to court blacks in the 2000 campaign - and failed. He ended up with fewer African-American votes than any GOP standardbearer since Barry Goldwater.

Though many blacks note that Bush is still far too conservative for them - and the gains will be transitory - GOP strategists know they, at least, have a receptive audience for the moment.

According to Mr. Dowd's numbers, the president's approval rating among blacks since Sept. 11 has jumped 30 percent in recent months, to "60 or 70 percent." That compares, for instance, to the performance of a critical swing-voter group - independents - whose approval grew by 20 points.

Other surveys confirm the big increase. According to the "battleground" poll conducted by Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake, the president's job approval among African-Americans jumped from 26 percent at the end of his first 100 days, to 60 percent last month. That compares to a job approval -rating among all Americans, which climbed from 58 percent to 85 percent. Blacks outpaced the total sample by 7 points.

Mr. Goeas describes the growth in black approval as "huge" and says it indicates a lessening of historical resistance to Republicans. The significance, continues Goeas, is that it's "breaking down those walls that have built up in the partisan fights and class warfare that have gone on for decades. The debate is so much more today a debate between Republican and Democratic solutions rather than a debate over do Republicans care."

David Bositis, an expert in black voting patterns, dismisses this analysis. The high approval ratings, he says, are due to the "rally around the flag" phenomenon and won't stick because the president's domestic agenda does not appeal to African Americans.

"George W. Bush has an extremely conservative agenda. It's not an agenda that in any way, shape, or form is of interest to most African-Americans," Mr. Bositis argues. Further, he explains, the president's budget cuts many programs that are popular with African Americans.

For instance, it eliminates federal grants to so-called "empowerment zones" in depressed urban and rural areas. With black unemployment at 9.8 percent - compared to an overall rate of 5.6 percent - the president is vulnerable on the economy with this group. Bositis also says that the sample size of blacks in surveys like the "battleground" poll is not big enough to paint a complete picture of black opinion. Other polls show a more modest results.

Strategically, however, the president is still in a far stronger position with this group than this same time one year ago.

"The White House recognizes there is this big opportunity because of where the president stands with the public and, specifically, African-Americans," says Dowd. "They see this as an opportunity to communicate with them."

The president has taken advantage of Black History Month in a radio address, focusing especially on his recently enacted education reform as a way to improve the future of young African-Americans. Recently he invited leaders of the nation's historically black collegesto the White House for the creation of a presidential advisory board for black higher education. The administration says it is on track with a four-year, 30 percent, funding increase to historically black colleges. It doesn't hurt to have a piece on National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in Oprah Winfrey's magazine this month, nor to have Secretary of State Colin Powell appear on MTV.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer points out that when Bush was Texas governor, he more than doubled the black vote. "It's not unusual for a Republican to have a very difficult time in the first campaign," and then, after voters have a chance to judge performance, improve in the second, he says.

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